Emor: Death Is Not Holy

May 11, 2022 at 12:06 pm | Posted in Emor | Leave a comment

Why won’t Mr. Cohen go into a cemetery?

Josefov Cemetery, Prague, where a six-foot distance is impossible. (photo by M.C.)

A kohein (hereditary priest) must distance himself from death, according to this week’s Torah portion, Emor. Proximity to a dead body is limited, and mourning practices are curtailed.

An Orthodox Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of the ancient kohanim (plural of kohein) still follows this principle.1 Mr. Cohen (or Kahn, Kagan, or any other variant) is also honored at Orthodox services, where he gets to deliver the priestly blessing, and he chants the first aliyah for a Torah reading.

But unlike a kohein of old, Mr. Cohen no longer acts as an intermediary for God. He neither officiates at the sanctuary nor receives sacrificial offerings at an altar. His role is strictly ceremonial, and has been ever since the year 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he keeps a distance of at least four cubits (six feet!) between himself and any coffin or grave, a rule derived from the portions Emor in Leviticus and Chukkat in Numbers.2

Why does Emor require the kohanim to keep their distance from the dead?


The portion begins with God telling Moses:

Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them: Lo yitama for a body among your own people, except for the blood-relative closest to him: his mother or his father or his son or his daughter or his brother. (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)

kohanim (כֺּהֲנִים) = priests; male descendants of Aaron. (Plural of kohein, כֺּהֵן.)

lo yitama (לֺא־יִטַּמָּא) = you must not make yourself ritually impure, contaminated. (From the same root as tamei, טָמֵא = ritually impure, contaminated, unacceptable for normal contact.)

A priest in the Torah is allowed to be near the body of his recently deceased parent, child, brother, or (in Leviticus 21:3) unmarried sister because he is responsible for the burial.3

A person who is tamei is not allowed to enter the grounds of God’s sanctuary—where all Israelites worship, and the kohanim officiate.

Contact with or proximity to a dead human body is the worst form of being tamei,4 and ritual purity can only be restored if the tamei person is sprinkled seven days later with water containing the ashes of a pure red cow5—ashes that have not been available since the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. An ordinary priest in the ancient Israelite kingdoms stayed away from the sanctuary during his seven days of impurity after attending the death of a close blood relative.6

The high priest, however, is forbidden to go near anyone who has died, no matter how close.

And he must not come where there is any dead body; [even] for his father or his mother lo yitama. And from the holy place he must not go out … (Leviticus 21:11-12)

Why does he have to be ritually pure enough to stay in “the holy place”, i.e. the sanctuary grounds, at all times? The high priest’s extra duties are officiating on Yom Kippur and running the administration of the temple. Except for the week of Yom Kippur, couldn’t he take seven days off from work?

The problem is the required level of holiness. All the Israelites are required be holy by serving God and obeying the ethical rules.7 The kohanim must be as holy as the temple sanctuary and its furnishings, i.e. set aside from profane activities and dedicated to God full-time.

Holy they must be for their God, and they must not profane the name of their God, because those who offer a fire-offering of God, as food of their God, must be holy. (Leviticus 21:6)

Although ordinary priests are allowed a brief lapse from holiness to bury a close blood relative, the high priest must be even holier than that. He even wears a gold plate on his forehead inscribed “Holy to God”.8

In the Torah a person cannot be both tamei (unfit to serve God) and holy (serving God), because the God of Israel must not be associated with death. That is why the kohanim were not only required to avoid corpses in most cases, but also to avoid most signs of mourning.


Pieter Paul Rubens, Franciscan Friar (detail), circa 1616. The hair is rounded back.

The previous Torah portion, Kedoshim, prohibits all Israelites from engaging in two of the common mourning practices in the Ancient Near East: shaving the beard or the hair at the temples, and scarification or tattooing.

You must not round back the side of your head [hair], and you must not destroy the side of your beard. And you must not make an incision for a [dead] person in your flesh, and you must not engrave a tattoo into yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19:27-28)

The Torah is not against shaving per se. Nazirites end their terms as holy lay people by shaving their entire heads.9 When Levites are initiated into the clergy, and when people with the skin disease tzara-at are healed, they have to shave their entire bodies.10

Nor is the Torah opposed to every form of cutting into the skin. Circumcision is required for males, and piercings are condoned for earrings and nose-rings. The Torah only prohibits shaving hair and cutting into skin in the context of mourning.11

The Torah does allow mourners who are not priests to tear their garments, to throw dust on their heads, or to tear their hair. But the kohanim must exercise more restraint.

They must not make a bald spot on their heads, and they must not shave off a side of their beards. They must not incise incisions in their flesh. (Leviticus 21:5)

The Talmud rules in several tractates that a kohein nust not tear his hair to make a bald spot even the size of a grain of rice.

And the great kohein, above his kinsmen, upon whose head anointing oil was poured and who was ordained to wear the [high priest’s] garments, must not bare his head and must not tear his garments. (Leviticus 20:10)

An extreme gesture of mourning by a priest would detract from God’s reputation as a god of life.


Two Egyptian Priests perform the funerary rite “Opening of the Mouth”, 1275 BCE

Modern commentator Jacob Milgrom pointed out that although priests in other religions officiated at funerals, kohanim were limited to tending their own dead. “A polemic may underlie these verses against the Egyptian cult, which was obsessed with death and the afterlife and which contained in every temple a cadre of special priests involved in funerary rites.”12

19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch went further, writing: “Heathenism, both ancient and modern, tends to associate religion with death. The kingdom of God begins only where man ends. Death and dying are the main manifestations of divinity.”13

Crucifixion by Giotto, 14th c.

I suspect Hirsch was alluding to two aspects of most Christian sects: the glorification of the dead body of Jesus on the cross (before resurrection), and the importance of belief in an afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible posits an underground place called Sheol where the souls of the dead go, but those souls are unconscious.

The dead do not praise God, nor any who go down to silence. But we ourselves will bless God, from now until eternity. (Psalm 155:17-18)

Judaism still calls God Elohim chayim (the god of life, the god of living).14 Jews do honor our dead friends and family members in cemeteries—with burial services, headstone unveilings, and leaving memorial pebbles on graves (except, of course, for Orthodox Mr. Cohen). We also honor and remember our dead by saying the Mourner’s Kaddish for our them, though the language of that prayer praises God for granting life. But we do not exalt death or look forward to an afterlife.

When I meet people whose personal religion revolves around an afterlife, I wonder if they are fully appreciating this life. I would rather focus on the holy glory of life in this world, like the kohanim.

  1. Genetic research has shown that most Jews with a last name like Cohen and a family tradition of being called to the Torah with “ha-kohein” appended to their name actually do share a group of common ancestors.
  2. Numbers 19:11-20 explains that a person becomes tamei by touching a dead person, or being in the same tent, or stepping on (or into) a burial site.
  3. A priest’s legitimate wife is added in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 22b.
  4. Ritual impurity is also caused by other reminders of death: the skin disease tzara-at (Leviticus 13:3-46), discharge after giving birth (Leviticus 12:2-8), genital discharges including menstrual blood and semen (Leviticus 15:1-32), touching or eating dead animals that were not properly slaughtered (Leviticus 11:8, 11:24-38, and 11:44-47), and touching a tamei person or thing (e.g. Numbers 19:22).
  5. Numbers 19:1-20.
  6. Ezekiel 44:25-27 (part of this week’s haftarah reading).
  7. Leviticus 19:1-2.
  8. Exodus 28:36-37. See my post Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead.
  9. Numbers 6:13-18.
  10. Leviticus 14:8-9, Numbers 8:5-7.
  11. This also applies to Deuteronomy 14:1. See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.
  12. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 262.
  13. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 703.
  14. This appellation first appears in Deuteronomy 5:23.


Kedoshim: Love Them Anyway

May 4, 2022 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Kedoshim | Leave a comment

German Iris, by Albrecht Dürer, 1503

My grandfather was a crackpot. He threw away money on get-rich-quick schemes; he dropped in on neighborhood housewives with irises from his garden and then stayed all afternoon, oblivious to hints, until they called my grandmother in desperation. For decades my grandparents’ marriage limped along without sex or affection, but Grandma kept bailing out Grandpa, feeding him, doing his laundry.

“If he makes so much trouble for you, why don’t you divorce him?” my mother asked.

Grandma sighed. “Who else would take care of him?”


Love your neighbor like yourself. Love the stranger like yourself. Both of these divine commands appear in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

Like the English verb “love”, the Hebrew verb ahav (אָהַב) in both of these commands can refer to either a feeling of deep affection for another person, or an unselfish course of action for the benefit of another. My grandmother only “loved” my grandfather according to the second definition.

Which kind of love is commanded in this week’s Torah portion?

Love your neighbor

You must not be hostile toward your kinsman in levavekha; you must definitely reprimand your comrade, and you must not carry guilt on account of him. You must not take revenge, and you must not hold a grudge against [any of] your own people. And you must love reiakha like yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

levavekha (לְבָוֶךָ) = your “heart”, i.e. your seat of consciousness including thinking as well as feeling.

reiakha (רֵעֲךָ) = your friend, your fellow, your neighbor.

The Torah uses words for “your kinsman/family member”, “your comrade/colleague”, “your people”, and “your neighbor/fellow” to include everyone with whom you have some personal relationship, from a close relative to an acquaintance in your social or ethnic group.

It is human nature to have hostile feelings toward some of these individuals, particularly when they do something that wrongs us, or something that we disapprove of. But in Biblical Hebrew, the heart is the seat not only of feelings, but also of thoughts and conscious decisions. This injunction commands us to recognize our hostile feelings, think about the situation, and take the right actions anyway.

The Reprimand, by Jean de la Hoese, 1846-1917

The right actions include speaking up and telling people when you notice they are doing wrong. (You must definitely reprimand your comrade.)

Classic commentary adds that you must tell them when you believe they have insulted or harmed you. This gives them the opportunity to either apologize or explain themselves. Then you must either accept their apologies or consider their extenuating circumstances and move on. Instead of getting back at them or holding a grudge, you must treat them with courtesy.1

Moreover, you must love them like yourself. “Love” in this case cannot mean a feeling of deep affection. For one thing, although we can retrain our feelings, it takes a lot of practice over a long period of time; meanwhile, we need to control our behavior. For another, some people do not love themselves; but nevertheless they should behave ethically toward other people.2

Therefore “you must love reiakha like yourself” is a variation of the Golden Rule; you must promote the welfare of your fellow equally with your own.3

According to Ramban, we should conquer our natural desire for superiority and do what we can to bring every good thing that we desire to our fellow-beings as well—just as Jonathan, the son of King Saul, did everything he could for David’s welfare and did not mind that David became king instead of himself.4

The only exception that classic commentary cites is Rabbi Akiva’s answer to a Talmudic question: When two men in a desert have only enough water for one to survive long enough to reach a settlement, should they share the water and both die? Rabbi Akiva replied: “your life takes precedence over the life of the other”.5

Love the stranger

Later in this week’s Torah portion, God commands the Israelites to treat immigrants or resident aliens the same way as members of their own groups.

Beating a slave, 15th century BCE Egyptian tomb

And if a resident alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The one who resides with you must be like a native-born citizen among you. And you must love him like yourself, because you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt. I am God, your god. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

This passage begins by prescribing a course of action: do not oppress the resident alien, treat him the same way you treat people in your own group. Elsewhere the book of Leviticus specifies that these resident aliens are subject to the same laws (including many religious laws) as natives.6

But it ends by an appeal to love as a feeling rather than a course of action; the reason for treating aliens fairly is that you can empathize with them, since your own ancestors once lived in a foreign country.

This injunction applies only to immigrants or to people of other nationalities who are living in your country for a while. Nowhere does the Torah require a loving course of action toward foreigners in other countries. Nor does it tell the Israelites to empathize with them. A loving approach toward foreigners in other countries would conflict with the demands of war. The Torah approves of initiating wars, and even of committing genocide.7


Many people today believe we should act for the benefit of all human beings on earth. But how far should your personal circle of responsibility extend? If you know a hundred people, should you strive to help all of them get the good things in life, or only those in the most need, or only those who ask you, or only those closest to you, or only those who have no one else? Do you share your resources, including time, to the point where you yourself no longer have enough?

Most people want to take care of themselves and the people for whom they feel deep affection. Widening your circle of loving actions is not so easy. For example, it can be hard to take care of a family member who is all trouble and no reward, as my grandmother found out.

“You must love your fellow like yourself” may be the greatest ethical command in the bible. But it may also be the most difficult.

  1. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) and Or HaChayim (18th-century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar) on Leviticus 19:17-18.
  2. Some classic commentaries, including Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 113b; Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir); and Or HaChayim also balk at the idea of feeling affection toward people who do evil deeds.
  3. However, John H. Collins argued that the preceding verses, Leviticus 19:13-16, indicate that “love” in this case means “Love, then, is not an emotion here, but refers to treating one’s neighbor justly—the manner you might treat someone whom you do love.” (https://www.thetorah.com/article/love-your-neighbor-how-it-became-the-golden-rule)
  4. See https://www.sefaria.org/Ramban_on_Leviticus.19.19?lang=bi.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 62a, which cites Akiva’s response to Leviticus 25:36: And your kinsman shall live with you.
  6. Examples include Leviticus 16:2, 17:8, 17:12, 20:2, 24:16, and 24:21-22. Extra consideration is required for the resident alien who gleans along with the poor, the fatherless, and the widow in Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22.
  7. See my post Eikev & Judges: Love or Kill the Stranger?


Exile in Tarshish

April 25, 2022 at 6:57 pm | Posted in Jonah | Leave a comment

Was I was in Israel last week without knowing it?

The Torah says to observe Passover/Pesach for seven days, and that’s what Jews still do in Israel. Since Passover began on Friday evening, April 15, Jews in Israel read the Torah portion Acharei Mot on Saturday morning, April 22.

So did I.  And I stayed up late several nights last week writing a blog post about Acharei Mot,1 just as if I were in Israel.

But in the diaspora—the Jewish population outside what was our religion’s homeland thousands of years ago—Jews observe Passover for eight days. When I joined a Shabbat service by Zoom last Saturday, the eighth morning after Passover began, there was a Passover Torah reading and two special holiday prayer sections2. And I realized my mistake.

The diaspora includes places thick with Jews, like Brooklyn. But it also includes places where Jews are hard to find, like the small town on the Oregon coast where I live now.

At sunset on the first night of Passover, I was just getting home from a four-hour drive after a week of clearing out my mother’s house. (I succeeded in moving her to assisted living last month, but there is so much more to do!) That evening my husband and I went through the first page of the Passover ritual (with oregano3), then stumbled off to bed. We skipped the second seder because after two pandemic years, we couldn’t bear to watch it by Zoom for a third year. And for the first time in over 20 years, we forgot to start counting the omer.

Clearly my mind was not in Israel, but in Tarshish.

Tarshish is the most distant location mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Jonah begins when God tells Jonah to go prophesy in Nineveh, something he absolutely does not want to do. Nineveh is northeast of Jonah’s home, Gat-Hefer in the northern Kingdom of Israel.4 Jonah heads southeast, to the coast.

Phoenician Merchant Ship, 4th cent. BCE relief

And Jonah got up to run away toward Tarshish, away from the presence of God. He went down to Jaffa and he found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid its fare and he went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of God. (Jonah 1:3)

Although we no longer know where Tarshish was, we know that Phoenicians from ports like Jaffa crossed the Mediterranean to trade with Tarshish. The bible includes Tarshish in lists of distant islands and far shores.5 Large ships suitable for long-distance travel are called ani tarshish (עָנִי תַרְשִׁשׁ) = Tarshish ships.6 Tarshish is the epitome of a faraway land.

Second Isaiah speaks of a future time when people from all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship God, even the most distant.

… Tarshish, Pul, and Lud … Tuval and Yavan: the far shores, the remote places that have not heard my name … (Isaiah 66:19)

So I was not in Israel last week; I was in Tarshish.

The Passover seder ends: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Next year (if the progression of Covid permits) I just want to be in Portland with some of my Jewish friends.

I am realizing what it means to be in exile from both of my Jewish communities in Portland. This small coastal town seemed like the perfect place to live when the pandemic began, but now it feels like Tarshish.

Tarshish may be one of the ends of the earth, but living here is not the end of the world. I am my own island of Torah study here. Every day I sing my morning prayers, and every day when I first see the ocean I say the blessing thanking God for making the “great sea”. I will pay more attention to the Jewish calendar. And someday I will sail home from Tarshish.

  1. Acharei Mot: Private Parts.
  2. Haleil and Yizkor.
  3. See my post Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano.
  4. 2 Kings 14:25.
  5. Genesis 10:1-5; Isaiah 23:6, 66:19.
  6. 1 Kings 10:22, 22:48; Isaiah 2:16; Psalm 48:7; 2 Chronicles 20:37.

Acharey Mot: Private Parts

April 21, 2022 at 10:21 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot | 1 Comment

No man shall approach any flesh of his own flesh to uncover ervah; I am God. Ervah of your father, and ervah of your mother, you must not uncover …  (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6-7).

ervah (עֶרְוָה) = genitals, private parts; shameful places; vulnerable places.

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, God forbids any Israelite man from uncovering the ervah of the following relatives: his father, his mother, his stepmother, his sister, his half-sister, his granddaughter, his stepsister, his aunt, his uncle, his daughter-in-law, his wife’s daughter, or his wife’s sister (during the lifetime of his wife).1

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and King James Version (KJV) translations both use the word “nakedness” to translate ervah in each forbidden relationship, and the reader understands that uncovering someone’s “nakedness” means sexual intercourse.

But in English, “naked” refers to the nudity of the whole body, not just the genitals. The Biblical Hebrew word for being nude or undressed is arom. Unlike arom, the word ervah refers specifically to the genitals.2

Why is it bad for a man to uncover the ervah of one of the forbidden sexual partners listed in the portion Acharei Mot and again in Kedoshim in Leviticus?3

The Torah is not concerned about inbreeding. Although the prohibitions in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are often called incest laws, some of the forbidden relationships would be considered odd or unsavory, but not incestuous today.4 On the other hand, the Torah does not forbid marriage between a man and his niece—a sexual relationship that some countries today deem incestuous because a quarter of their genes would be shared.

But there are other problems when a man uncovers the wrong ervah. His deed is shameful; it takes advantage of a vulnerability; and it trespasses on private property.


The word ervah first appears in the Torah after the Flood, when Noah gets drunk and lies down naked inside his tent.

Noah’s Drunkenness, by James JJ Tissot, 1902

And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the ervah of his father, and he told his two brothers outside. Then Sheim and Yafet took the cloak and put it over both their shoulders, and they walked backward, and they covered the ervah of their father; and their faces were turned so they did not see the ervah of their father.  (Genesis 9:22-23)

The implication is that it would be shameful to see one’s father’s genitals (although later in Genesis, Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath by placing his hand under his master’s genitals5). In addition, Cham might have done more than just look. Noah is so outraged when he learns what happened while he was sleeping off his wine, he utters a curse making Cham’s descendants, the Canaanites, slaves to Sheim and Yafet’s descendants. Either way, in this story the word ervah is associated with shame.

When King Saul loses his temper and insults his son Jonathan, he says:

“Don’t I know that your favorite is the son of Jesse—to your shame and to the shame of the ervah of your mother!” (1 Samuel 20:30)

Shame is also an issue when the book of Lamentations compares Jerusalem’s worship of other gods to an unfaithful woman who exposes her own ervah to multiple lovers.6

          Jerusalem was a sinful sinner;

          Therefore she became an object of head-shaking.

          Everyone who had honored her despised her

          Because they saw her ervah. (Lamentations/Eychah 1:8)

What about when a man uncovers the ervah of someone on the list of forbidden sexual partners? At the end of the list, Acharei Mot mentions several other forbidden acts, from sex with a neighbor’s wife to sex with a non-human animal, and then concludes:

You must observe my decrees and my laws, and you must not do any of these abominations … Because everyone who does any of these abominations, their souls shall be cut off from being near their people. (Leviticus 18:26, 29)

In other words, uncovering the ervah of the wrong person, along with several other acts, is so shameful the perpetrator cannot be tolerated in society.


The word ervah can also be a metaphor for vulnerability, since a human’s most vulnerable place is a tender genital organ. Joseph, as the viceroy of Egypt, falsely accuses his older brothers by saying:

“You are spies! You have come to see the ervah of the land!” (Genesis 42:9)

The ervah of the land consists of the country’s most vulnerable places: the towns that lack garrisons or defensive walls.

Most of the people a man is forbidden to uncover in this week’s Torah portion are women, who had less power and were therefore more vulnerable in an ancient Israelite household. In ancient Israel, one man was the head of a household of family members and slaves living around a common courtyard. Maimonides7 wrote that since any man in a household could have access to any of the women, the rules in Leviticus protected women and girls from unwanted advances.

Private Property

One euphemism for the genitals in English is “private parts”. In the book of Exodus, God considers it inappropriate to see a man’s private parts when he is conducting public worship. Before the institution of priests, God allows people to make offerings at many altars, but warns:

And you must not walk up steps to climb onto my altar, so that your ervah will not be uncovered upon it. (Exodus/Shemot 20:23)

Later in Exodus, God decides that priests descended from Aaron will lead all public worship, and orders a different solution to prevent exposure:

And you shall make them linen underpants to cover the flesh of their ervah; from the waist to the upper thighs they shall be. (Exodus 28:42)

Male genitals are personal and private; offering slaughtered animals to God is a public religious act.

“Private” also means restricted to the use of a particular individual, and free from unauthorized intrusion.

A female in ancient Israelite society was always the personal property of a man, unless she was a prostitute. An unmarried girl or woman belonged to her father, a married woman belonged to her husband, a widow belonged to her son, and a female slave belonged ultimately to her master.

This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that only a woman’s own husband or master is authorized to uncover her private parts.

In the 14th century C.E., Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi explained that the prohibitions in this week’s Torah portion prevent violence between men living in the same household, since without these rules the men would quarrel over ownership of the women.

On the other hand, the rules grant every Israelite woman a physical right to privacy that no one but her husband is allowed to violate.


Some sexual ethics from the world of the bible should still apply today. It should still be shameful for someone to force sexual exposure on another person. We should still consider human genital areas vulnerable and worthy of protection. And we should still view our private parts as personal property that no unauthorized person may trespass upon.

The difference is that modern culture grants autonomy to every individual, regardless of gender. All individuals have the right to decide who may or may not encroach upon their private parts.

May we all come to respect each other as individuals with the right to choose for ourselves what to uncover, and what to keep private.

  1. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) pointed out that the prohibition against sex with both a woman and her daughter bans a man from sex with his own daughter.
  2. And once to the anus, in Deuteronomy 23:14-15.
  3. Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11-21.
  4. For example, a single man in our society is free to marry the wife of any blood relative after that relative is dead or divorced. And Woody Allen married his ex-wife’s adopted daughter without committing incest.
  5. Genesis 24:2, 24:9. The Hebrew word yareich (יָרֵךְ) means upper thigh or buttock, but it is also one of several biblical euphemisms for the human genitals.
  6. Isaiah 57:8; Ezekiel 16:37, 23:10, and 23:18; Hosea 2:12; and Nahum 3:5 express this theme using the same word for “uncover” as in Acharei Mot (piel forms of galah, גָּלָה), without including the more charged word ervah.
  7. Maimonides is 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also called Rambam.

Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano

April 14, 2022 at 4:00 pm | Posted in Bo, Chukkat, Metzora, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

Jews will gather around tables all over the world this Friday evening for the Passover seder, a ritual and story about God liberating the Israelites from Egypt. One highlight is when we chant the names of the ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt. After the name of each plague, we use one finger to remove a drop from the second of our four ceremonial cups of wine.1

Death of the Firstborn, Spanish Haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague is makat bechorot, death of the firstborn; God takes the life of every firstborn in every family in Egypt—except for the Israelites who mark their doors so that God skips, or passes over, them.

Before the final plague, God tells Moses that each Israelite family must slaughter a lamb or goat kid on the fourteenth day of the month.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted in fire, and unleavened flatbread; on bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-8)

After describing how the Israelites should eat standing up with their loins girded, ready to leave, God says:“… It is a Pesach for God.” (Exodus 12:11)

Pesach (פֶּסַח) = the sacrifice mandated in Exodus 12; the annual spring pilgrimage festival in the Torah; the annual observance of Passover. (From the root verb pasach, פָּסַח = limp, skip.)

“And the blood will be a sign on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood ufasachti over you, and you will not be afflicted with destruction when I strike in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

ufasachti (וּפָסַחְתִּי) = and I will skip over you. (A form of the verb pasach.)

The animal blood both signals an escape from death and brings the recipient close to God—in these instructions and in two other rituals in the Torah in which the blood of  slaughtered animal is applied with branches of oregano.

1) Bo in Exodus (Pesach)

Moses adds oregano when he transmits God’s instructions to the Israelites.

Preparing for the Plague of the Firstborn, History Bible, Paris, c. 1390

“Then you shall take a bundle of eizov and you shall dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. And you must not let anyone go out from the door of his house until morning. Upasach, God, to strike dead the Egyptians, and [God] will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, upasach, God, the door and not let the destruction enter your houses to strike dead [your firstborn].  (Exodus 12:21-23)

eizov (אֵזֺב) = Syrian oregano, an aromatic perennial herb. (Traditionally translated as “hyssop”, although true hyssop does not grow in the Middle East.) Eizov grows in stony ground to a height of 3-4 feet; its stems are the longest in the oregano branch of the mint family.

upasach (וּפָסַח) = and he will pass over, skip over. (Another form of the verb pasach.)

In the above passage, the first upasach means that God will pass over Egypt, and the second upasach means that God will skip over the houses whose doorframes are painted with blood.

An omniscient god would already know which houses to skip. Either the God-character in this story is not omniscient, or God includes the blood painting for its emotional impact.

Up to this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves find it hard to believe that God is on their side. But when they discover that God has killed every firstborn in every house except theirs, they are (temporarily) reassured that God is indeed rescuing them, and they march out of Egypt into freedom “with a high hand”.2

Why does Moses specify that the Israelites should use a bunch of eizov to paint the blood? The only herbs God mentioned to him were generic bitter herbs, to be eaten with the roast lamb or goat. Oregano is savory, but not bitter. Perhaps Moses is afraid that the Israelites will find it eerie to paint with blood, and he hopes to comfort them with the good smell of oregano.

2) Metzora in Leviticus

Last week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes four steps of purification for someone who has recovered from the skin disease tzara-at. Although this disease does not seem to be contagious, the white and scaly patches of skin are a reminder of death. If the tzara-at clears up, ritual purification is necessary so that the healed person can return to the community and to God’s sanctuary. (See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.)

Two Birds, by Simon Fokke, 18th century

The first step is a ritual requiring two wild birds.

And the priest shall slaughter one bird in an earthenware vessel [held] over living water. The live bird he shall take, along with the cedar wood and the crimson dye and the eizov, and he shall dip them and the live bird into the blood of the bird [that was] slaughtered over living water. Then he shall sprinkle it on the one being purified from tzara-at seven times and purify him. And he shall send the live bird out over the open field. (Leviticus 14:5-6)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the life-force (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal.3 Here the priest kills one bird and catches its lifeblood in a bowl held over fresh water, which is called “living water” in the bible. The priest dips the other bird into the blood of life and sets it free. The healed person who is watching knows deep down that God has rescued them and given them new life.

The cedar and crimson dye (made from shield-louse eggs) have no apparent purpose except to emphasize the red color of the blood.

The eizov is used to sprinkle blood on the person being purified. A bunch of branches covered with soft leaves can be used to paint blood on something, and also be shaken to sprinkle blood on someone. And shaking a bunch of eizov branches would release the good smell of oregano, a reminder that life will be savory again.

3) Chukat in Numbers

A purification ritual in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar uses blood and eizov to make a transition for someone who has been exposed to a human death, so that the person can return to the right state for worshiping God with the community.

First a perfect, unblemished red cow that has never carried a yoke is slaughtered outside the camp as a chatat (חַטָּאת), an offering to compensate for an inadvertent sin or lapse. Usually someone offers a chatat after realizing they have made an error in observance that separates them from God. The chatat in this Torah portion is unique because the offering is slaughtered and burned ahead of time, so that future people who find they have become separated from the divine through exposure to human death can make a virtual chatat.

Then Elazar the high priest shall take some of her [the cow’s] blood with his finger, and he shall flick some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:4)

This connects the cow’s life with God’s holy place. Next, Elazar watches while someone burns the entire cow, even its blood and dung.

And the priest shall take cedar wood and eizov and crimson dye, and throw them into the middle of the burning cow. (Numbers 19:6)

The ashes of the red cow in Chukat are gathered and stored in a ritually pure place, to be used to purify the following:

1) Anyone who is inside a tent where a human dies, and anyone who enters the tent for the next seven days (Numbers 19:14).

2) Anyone who touches a human corpse (even on a battlefield), or who touches a human bone, or who touches a grave (Numbers 19:16).

Eizov (Syrian oregano)

Then some of the ashes of the burning of the chatat will be taken and mixed with living water in a vessel. Then a ritually pure man shall take eizov and dip it in the water, and he shall sprinkle it over the tent and on all the vessels and on the souls who were there; or on the one who touched the bones, or the killed person, or the person who died [of natural causes], or the grave. And the ritually pure one shall sprinkle it on the third day and on the seventh day. Vechito on the seventh day. And he shall clean his clothes and he shall wash in water, and he will be ritually pure in the evening. (Numbers 19:17-19)

vechito (וְחִטּאוֹ) = and he will become free of his lapse. (From the same root as chatat.)

Anyone exposed to death who does not go through this process is excluded or “cut off” from the community. If they were not excluded, “the holy place of God would become impure”. (Numbers 19: 20)


Today we have no ritual to free us from the feeling of alienation that accompanies contact with death; there has been no ash from a pure red cow for two thousand years. Neither do we have a ritual to reintegrate with the community when we recover from a disfiguring condition that isolates us as tzara-at once did.

And today very few Jews in the world observe Passover by slaughtering a lamb and painting its blood on their doorframes with bunches of giant oregano—even during the current plague of Covid. The long ritual seder developed over the past millennium and a half focuses on freedom from slavery, not on fear that God will kill us.

Nevertheless, this Passover I am going to put a sprig of oregano on my seder plate, next to the bitter herbs. Even during times when we are crushed by the bitterness of physical or psychological slavery, life has savory moments.

  1. The custom of removing drops of wine is first mentioned in a Pesach sermon written by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176–1238). The idea that we do it in sympathy for the Egyptians is based on Proverbs 24:17 and first appeared in commentary by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812-1874).
  2. Numbers 33:3.
  3. Leviticus 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23.

Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2

April 6, 2022 at 4:34 pm | Posted in Metzora | Leave a comment

When circumstances force us to learn a new way of life, rules and a schedule help us to navigate the transition.

One major life transition is the birth of a child. Last week we looked at the rules and timelines in the Torah portion Tazria that provide procedures for ritual purification after post-partum vaginal discharge—and allow time for mothers to reintegrate with their communities after their lives are changed by the birth of a new infant. (See my post Tazria: Time to Learn, Part 1.)

Vitiligo. Tzara-at involved more than the loss of skin pigmentation in this modern condition.

The portion Tazria also provides instructions for diagnosing and isolating anyone with a skin disease called tzara-at (צָרַעַת), which is characterized by patches of scaly dead-white skin. Someone with tzara-at must live outside the camp or town, and avoid contact with any healthy person.

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, includes a ritual for returning to normal life in your community if you are cured of tzara-at.

If the disease disappears, a series of four rituals reintegrate someone into the community step by step.

1) When a priest goes outside the camp and sees that the skin disease has healed, he conducts the first ritual using two items associated with the color of blood, and two birds—one which is slaughtered and one which is set free. (For more information, see my 2011 post, Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles, and next week’s post, Pesach, Metzora, & Chukkat: Blood and Oregano.) At the end of this ritual the priest sprinkles the blood of the slaughtered bird on the recovered person seven times.

2) Those who have healed from tzara-at perform the second ritual by cleaning their clothes, shaving off their hair, and washing in water. This raises their status so they can enter the camp or town without making anyone who happens to touch them ritually impure.

3) However, they must wait seven days and perform an additional ritual of shaving and washing before they can return to live in their own tent or house inside the community.

And it will be on the seventh day he shall shave all of his hair and his beard and his eyebrows; all his hair he will shave. And he shall clean his clothes and wash his flesh in water, vetaheir. (Leviticus 14:9)

vetaheir (וְטָהֵר) = and he will be “pure”. (From the same root as tahor, טָהוֹר = clean; pure; ritually pure and therefore fit to touch sacred items and bring offerings to God.)

4) After this third ritual is completed, the healed person must bring three lambs, flour mixed with olive oil, and a log (about 2/3 pint or 290 ml) of oil to the priest at the sanctuary. The priest uses these items to make three offerings to God: an asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt offering; a chattat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering for unintentionally violating a religious rule; and an olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering to maintain the column of smoke constantly rising from the altar to the heavens.

The asham is the fourth ritual needed to reintegrate the healed person into the community. But why do people who were afflicted with tzara-at need to make guilt-offerings? What are they guilty of?

The book of Leviticus does not say. But centuries later the Talmud claimed that God struck people with tzara-at to punish them for malicious gossip.1 That was a secondary reason to isolate them from the camp or town. It could also be the reason they needed to acknowledge their guilt before they could engage in community worship again.

The portion Metzora instructs the priest slaughter one of the three lambs brought by the person who has been healed of tzara-at for the asham. Then the priest daubs its blood on the same three parts of the healed person’s anatomy as in a consecration offering to anoint a new priest.

And the priest shall take some of the blood of the asham, and the priest shall put it on the rim of the ear of the mitaheir, the right one; and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb [big toe] of his right foot. (Leviticus 14:14)

mitaheir (מִטַּהֵר) = one being purified, going through the steps to become acceptable again for religious life. (Also from the same root as tahor.)

When Moses ordains the first five priests (Aaron and his four sons) earlier in Leviticus, he daubs blood from a slaughtered ram on in same three places—the rim of the right ear, the right thumb, and the right big toe.2 After burning the ram, Moses sprinkles anointing oil, along with blood from the altar, over the five new priests and their vestments.3

The procedure for reintegrating a person healed of tzara-at does not call for a general sprinkling. Instead,

The priest shall take some of the … oil and pour it onto his own left palm. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is on his left palm and sprinkle some oil with his finger seven times in front of God. And some of the remaining oil that is on his palm, the priest shall put on the ridge of the right ear of the mitaheir, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb of his right foot, over the blood of the guilt-offering. And the rest of the oil that is on his palm, the priest shall put on the head of the mitaheir, and make atonement for him in front of God. (Leviticus 14:15-18)

The oil that the healed person brings the priest for this purpose is not anointing oil to ordain a priest, but only regular olive oil to achieve atonement between God and the person whom God had afflicted with tzara-at. The fact that God removed the skin disease is not enough; the authors of Leviticus, and presumably all ancient Israelites, were not satisfied until the final ritual brought atonement, confirming that the healed person and God were reconciled. Only then could they be sure that the person who was once afflicted with tzara-at had fully returned to the pure state necessary to serve God.


The seven-day period with four rituals was no longer possible after the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—and by that time there were no reports of anyone contracting a skin disease that matched the symptoms of tzara-at.

Still, sometimes people recover from other serious diseases, and need to return to normal life. A ritual of transition would help.

Their family, co-workers, and friends need to change their attitudes and assumptions about the formerly sick person. A ritual of transition would help them, too.

Although the four rituals for someone healed of tzara-at no longer apply, Jews still have a prayer that serves the same purpose. After the Torah reading at a Saturday morning service, anyone who has recovered from a major illness is called to recite or read out loud the following blessing of thanksgiving:

Blessed are you, God, our God, ruler of the universe, who bestows goodness upon the unworthy, who has bestowed upon me every goodness.4

The congregation responds:

Amen! The one who has bestowed on you every goodness, may he continue to bestow on you every goodness. Selah!

Thus the person’s healing is publicly recognized and celebrated. Instead of wondering if the afflicted person is dying, everyone understands that it is time to treat them as a healthy member of the community once more.

  1. Talmud Bavli, Arachin 15b-16b.
  2. Exodus 20:19, Leviticus 8:22-24.
  3. Exodus 20:21, Leviticus 8:30.
  4. This blessing is called the gomeil (גוֹמֵל) = bestowing, rendering, ripening. It is also recited by someone who has survived a dangerous journey, or any other life-threatening situation.

Tazria: Time to Learn, Part 1

March 31, 2022 at 10:03 pm | Posted in Tazria | 1 Comment

How long does it take to learn something new?

For new information, it depends on the person’s intelligence, concentration, and memory. Smart children can read or hear something once and grasp it. Smart adults, when they are distracted by their own children or by fellow workers demanding attention, need to ask for a repetition or a clarification. And some very old intelligent people, like my mother, have such poor memories that they must read or be told new information dozens of times before it sinks in.

How long does it take to learn a new way of life?

I believe it depends partly on the person’s own flexibility—including willingness to adapt, practice at changing, and ability to observe both oneself and others. But it also depends on external inflexibility: rules and customs that you must comply with. In our world, it is easier to adapt to school, to the armed services, to many jobs, and to senior residence centers because there are set times for meals and other activities. At 8:00 you must be here, and at noon you must be somewhere else.

Less structured changes are harder. How do I handle a new baby? A new serious medical diagnosis?

Humans had to learn new skills and habits in biblical times as well as today. This week’s Torah portion in Leviticus, Tazria (“She conceives”), describes structured rules that helped people learn new ways of life in two situations that have no set rules today: caring for a new infant, and dealing with a new disability.

by Mary Cassat

New Baby

The life of all flesh is its blood … (Leviticus 17:14)

The blood, it is the life … (Deutereonomy 12:23)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the animating force of life (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal. Some of the religious rules in the book of Leviticus address the fears that go with blood loss—fears that today are addressed by medical information.

This week’s Torah portion begins by establishing periods of isolation following childbirth, which causes women to bleed.

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, then tamei-ah for seven days; titema as in the days of the regulation about her menstruation. And on the eighth day the skin of his foreskin will be circumcised. Then for 33 days she will stay in bloodshed of purification; she may not touch anything holy, and she may not come into the holy place, until her days of purification have been filled. (Leviticus 12:2-4)

tamei-ah (טָמְאָה) = she has become ritually impure, excluded from religious rituals, desanctified. (A kal form of the verb tamei, טָמֵא = become ritually impure, which may be derived from the noun tamei, טָמֵא = someone or something that is ritually impure, desanctified, unsuitable for normal contact; “unclean” in old translations.)

titema (תִּטְמָא) = she has incurred ritual impurity. (A hitpael form of the verb tamei.)

The mother’s vaginal discharge is her “bloodshed of purification”: the natural release of elements used to nourish the fetus that are no longer needed. The process of purification is the mother’s transition from the state of pregnancy to the state in which she can once again engage in the sacred rituals of her religion. The number of days the woman must stay away from the sanctuary and all other sacred things is arbitrary, like the seven days of ritual impurity that Leviticus decrees for a menstrual period—regardless of whether the woman stops bleeding sooner.1

The first clue that the rule in the portion Tazria is not just about post-partum discharge is that the number of days before the mother is no longer tamei is different if her baby is a girl.

And if she gives birth to a female, then tamei-ah as in her menstrual period for a pair of weeks, and for 66 days she must stay in her bloodshed of purification. (Leviticus 12:5)

Post-partum bleeding normally lasts for four to fourteen days (followed by a scanty white discharge for several more weeks). This timeline might fit the 7+33 day period for the mother of a boy, but it does not fit the 14+66 day period for the mother of a girl.

And when the days of her purification for a son or for a daughter are filled, she shall bring a yearling lamb for a rising-offering and a dove or a turtle-dove for a reparation-offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest. And he shall offer it in front of God and make atonement over her, and she will be purified from the source of her bloodshed. (Leviticus 12:6-7)

“Rising-offering” is my literal translation of olah, עֺלָה, in which the sacrificial animal is completely burned up into smoke. The usual purpose of a rising offering is to please God with the smell of the smoke; 2 it is required twice a day, to keep the smoke rising perpetually. Additional rising-offerings are made to observe holy days, and to bring individuals who have been isolated back into a normal relationship with God and their community—which is dedicated to perpetual service to God.

A “reparation-offering” or chatat, חַטָּאת, sometimes translated as a “sin-offering”, is usually brought to the altar in order to atone for unintentionally violating one of God’s rules.3 But giving birth is the opposite of a violation. After all, God keeps ordering humans to be fruitful and multiply!

However, the mother may feel guilty that for several weeks all her care and attention was focused on her newborn, rather than on God. A reparation-offering would reassure her that God pardons her for her period of distraction.

Perhaps the infant boy’s circumcision reminded the mother of her separation from her child, so she was prepared to return to her religious community sooner than if her baby was a girl. Either way, the Torah prescribes a fixed period of isolation from regular life, followed by a ceremony of reintegration.

In modern society the mothers—or other primary caregivers—of newborn infants have no rules for managing the transition to a new way of life, a life in which they must both care for a new person and maintain their previous roles in the community. It might be helpful today to establish a fixed time period when they are excused from all social obligations, followed by a ceremony of reentry.

Next week I will consider the Torah’s structure for dealing with a new diagnosis in Tazria & Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.

  1. Leviticus15:19-24.
  2. Leviticus 1:17. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  3. See Leviticus 4:27-31 and my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.


Shemini: Realities

March 23, 2022 at 8:59 pm | Posted in Shemini | Leave a comment

Every day I explain to my 92-year-old mother why I moved her into assisted living near me. Every day she says she managed just fine living alone, and every day I remind her of serious problems that she ignored and then forgot about.

Sometimes I explain reality to her in person, sometimes over the phone. And she believes me—until she forgets what I said. I am touched that she trusts me now, and relieved that she has moved beyond her old habit of inventing her personal version of reality and defending it.

This week I am still solving problems and helping my mother unpack, so I do not have the quiet time I need to write a new blog post. But I have been thinking about this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, in which God creates a fire that sweeps out of the new tent-sanctuary and ignites the animal offerings on the altar. Immediately after this divine consecration of the altar, the high priest Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring their own incense into the tent-sanctuary. They, too, are immolated by divine fire.

Do they want to sacrifice themselves to God? Or do they ignore the plain evidence of God’s ferocious power, and stroll into the sanctuary without even asking Moses or Aaron if they are doing the right thing? Are they so swept away by their desire for divine union that they forget how dangerous God is? Or are they in denial about reality?

For more on the possible motivations of Nadav and Avihu, see my 2018 post: Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.

Relief on Purim

March 14, 2022 at 10:29 pm | Posted in Purim | Leave a comment

Two brown-eyed, gray-haired women are working hard to be pleasant and patient with one another as they achieve a difficult task: picking and packing items to move to a studio apartment in an assisted living residence.  The mother, age 92, is anxious about leaving her familiar home and going to a strange place. The daughter (me) is anxious about getting the packing done in time when her mother asks the same questions over and over, and takes hours to make decisions.

I give us both credit for rising above our anxiety and keeping our tempers.

By Wednesday evening, my mother will be in her new home. I hope both of us will feel relieved and glad about what we have achieved.

Wednesday evening is also Purim, the holiday when Jews read the book of Esther and turn life upside down. It’s a time for masks and unmasking, for outrageous skits based on the Esther story, for cross-dressing, for drinking, for eating hamantaschen cookies, for whooping it up. It’s a time to take a break from your anxieties and be glad.

I have no time to write anything new about the book of Esther now, but below are links to blog posts I wrote seven years ago concerning the journeys of the two heroes: Esther herself, and her uncle Mordecai. Between them, they save the Jews of Persia.

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 1

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 2

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 3

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 4

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 5


Vayikra & Kedoshim: Guilty Speech

March 10, 2022 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Va-etchannan, Vayikra, Yitro | Leave a comment

I thought that when the Jewish cycle of readings reached the book of Leviticus, I would be too busy moving my 92-year-old mother to write a post. I also thought there was nothing about the Ten Commandments in the book’s first Torah portion, Vayikra.

I was wrong on both counts. But next week the packing and moving begin!

The Third Commandment

The “Ten Commandments” appear both in Exodus (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy (in the portion Va-etchanan). The first commandment prohibits other gods, and the second prohibits idols. The third commandment reads:

You must not raise the name of Y-H-V-H, your God, for a worthless reason,1 since Y-H-V-H will not acquit anyone who raises [God’s] name for a worthless reason. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)

“Raising” the name of God means using God’s name in an oath, vow, or promise, according to the Talmud tractate Shevuot (“Oaths”). This tractate distinguishes two kinds of worthless oaths:

  • empty oaths that use God’s name to declare something true when it is either false or impossible;2 and
  • false oaths that use God’s name to make a promise that the speaker does not carry out.3

One Talmudic example of an empty oath is attaching God’s name to the declaration: “If I did not see a camel flying through the air!”4

Kedoshim: Any Name

Does the third commandment prohibit swearing by any of God’s names for a worthless reason, or only swearing by God’s four-letter personal name? The text is ambiguous. A command from God in the “holiness code” which appears later in the book of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim elaborates:

Velo tishavu in my name for a falsehood; then you would profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19:12)

velo tishavu (וְלֺא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ) = and you must not swear, vow, or pledge. (From the root verb shava.)

The author of Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus from early in the Talmudic period, wrote that the third commandment could be interpreted as forbidding a worthless use only of God’s personal name Y-H-V-H. Therefore the command in Kedoshim says “in my name” — any name that I have. 5

According to this reasoning, the Torah tells us not to profane any name of God by misusing it. Yet people who are in the habit of swearing might argue that they are not demeaning God when they say something harmless.

A deceitful vow is unethical whether the speaker swears by God or not. But is it really so bad to use one of God’s names in an empty way?

Yes, according to both this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and the later portion Kedoshim.

Vayikra and Kedoshim: An Empty Oath

This week’s Torah portion lists the correct offerings to bring to the altar for various purposes, including two types of atonement for inadvertently disobeying God’s rules: a reparation-offering (chattat, חַטָּאת), and a guilt-offering (asham, אָשָׁם).6 The section on reparation-offerings specifically addresses a harmless or empty violation of the third commandment:

… Or a person tishava with the lips, to do evil or to do good—whatever a human [says] bishevuah—and it was hidden from him; and then he realizes that he is carrying guilt because of one of these [oaths]; then it shall be that he shall accept guilt for one of these, and he shall confess what he did wrong concerning it. (Leviticus 5:4-5)

tishava (תִשָׁבַע) = swears, vows, or pledges in God’s name. (A form of the verb shava, שׁבע = swore an oath, vowed, or pledged using God’s name.)

bishevuah (בִּשְׁבֻעָה) = in a oath or vow using God’s name. (Also from the root verb shava.)

In this case the person is guilty merely of misusing God’s name, even if the outcome is good. The text goes on to prescribe that after the person realizes what they said and confesses to using God’s name for a worthless reason, they must bring a female sheep or goat to the altar as a reparation-offering.

What needs to be repaired? Swearing a pointless or empty oath is like swearing a false oath in the portion Kedoshim; it “would profane the name of your God.” 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote:

“Now the one who is constantly swearing, although there is no need for him to do so publicly, desecrates the name of God without deriving any benefit from his act.7

This forbidden act is different from the ninth commandment, which prohibits a witness in court from affirming a falsehood. Violating the ninth commandment can harm another person. Violating the third commandment cannot harm God, but it does demean God.

Vayikra: A Compounding Oath

The section on guilt-offerings in this week’s Torah portion considers a case in which one person inadvertently takes or keeps the property of another, and then the perpetrator swears they did nothing wrong.

And it shall be when he does a misdeed and realizes his guilt, then he will restore the robbed item that he robbed, or the deposit that was deposited with him, or the lost item that he found, or anything that yishava about falsely. And he will make amends for it by its principal and a fifth of it in addition; he will give it at that time to the one whose it is, as compensation for guilt. (Leviticus 5:23-24)

yishava (יִשָּׁבַע) = he swears in God’s name. (Another form of the verb shava.)

This time the perpetrator must compensate the victim, and also bring a ram as a guilt-offering to God.

Vayikra: Forgiveness

And the priest will make atonement for him in front of God, and he will be pardoned for everything that he did to incur guilt. (Leviticus 5:26)

The third commandment says God will not acquit anyone who swears an empty or false vow in God’s name. Yet God’s instructions in Vayikra say that after making recompense and offering the appropriate animal to God, the perpetrator will be pardoned. In other words, although the person who swears falsely will not be declared innocent, that person may still be forgiven.

This week’s Torah portion sets out the requirements for forgiveness: perpetrators must realize what they did wrong, confess it, compensate their victims, and make a public offering to God.

This model for forgiveness from God can also work to get forgiveness from a human. Although some crimes seem unforgivable to us, we are generally willing to forgive people for committing lesser crimes or doing personal harm if they recognize what they did, apologize, provide whatever recompense is possible, and—if they violated a civil law—serve their sentence.


Although confession, apology, and forgiveness can be done all year round, Jews set aside the month of Elul (in the late summer or early fall) for searching our consciences, apologizing to our fellow humans, and accepting the apologies of others. After Elul ends, we confess our sins against God and beseech God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

I find that in real life, only some of the people who have harmed me apologize. I figure the others do not realize that they said anything wrong—but although I can pardon them for their ignorance, I do not fully forgive them in my heart.

This week’s Torah portion does not say what to do if someone transgresses inadvertently and does not realize it. But the portion Kedoshim, later in Leviticus, says:

You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your comrade, and then  you will not carry guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)

One standard interpretation of this directive is that you must alert your fellow human beings to the consequences of their bad behaviors, so they become motivated to change their ways. But perhaps it is also good to let people know what they did that hurt you, so they receive an opportunity to realize it and apologize to you.

I wonder if I will ever be both brave and thoughtful enough to provide this kind of information, gently, to someone I wish I could forgive?

  1. lashaveh (לַשָּׁוְא) = for a worthless reason; in emptiness or in falsehood. (The traditional English translation is “in vain”.)
  2. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  4. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 29a, Mishna.
  5. Sifra is a commentary on Leviticus written in 250-350 C.E. that influenced the Talmud. This quote is from Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:6, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  7. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.


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